Past masters: Robert Frost

the-road-not-taken-robert-frostIt’s funny how the meanings of things like poems and songs can change for a person over time. This one sure has.

“The Road Not Taken” was required reading in my high school English class. I am the product of early-70s secondary education: I never was taught to conjugate a verb or when to use a semicolon (never!), but I knew about all the great American poets. It was very, very important to Get In Touch With Our Feelings about the poems we read. Like most of my peers, I had feelings of rebelliousness and rugged individuality from “The Road Not Taken.” Maybe it was an adolescent guy thing, I don’t know. He took the road less traveled by, you see: he took the unpopular path, the one less people took, he blazed his own trail, and says with a sigh of satisfaction that doing so has made all the difference in his life. Rock on, bro.

Some fifteen years later I read it again as a young adult. I got a whole different meaning from it. He kept the first path for another day, fully intending to revisit it, but doubting somewhat that would ever happen. He had to pick his path based on what he knew at the moment. The sigh became a sigh of longing and regret. He had chosen the harder way, the less-traveled way, and encountered the consequences along the path. He wondered how things would have gone if he chose the other, because his choice had made all the difference and led him to where he was that day.

Jump ahead another twenty years, and I read it as yet an older man. Again, the meaning changed. There’s a big clue in the title that I never caught before. Many people refer to the poem as “The Road Less Traveled,” but actually the title is “The Road Not Taken.” He’s describing the road he didn’t take, “the road less traveled” by him. Because there was in fact no difference between the two paths: they were worn about the same and would very likely have led to the same destination. Either choice was equally good or bad: and as an older man, reflecting on his life, he sighs with resignation and laments that he must have taken the more difficult path to where he ended up. Was he dissatisfied with where the path took him? Somewhat, probably: we all are at times. But this revisionist history is how he explains it to himself and others. His “story for the neighbors,” as an acquaintance used to say.

Sometimes I rationalize my circumstances by saying I must have reached them “the hard way,” though in reality I know better. Choosing one path over another doesn’t determine all: subsequent choices, and judgment, and good old fate and fortune’s favor and karma play a role as well.

See? No semicolons.

2 Comments on “Past masters: Robert Frost”

  1. […] It’s impossible to explain how much Jim Croce’s music meant to me and my friends in high school. Now everyone remembers his “wacky” songs like “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” or maybe the mushy ones like “Time In A Bottle” or “I’ll Have To Say I Love You With A Song.”  But in his less chart-friendly songs Jim sang about issues that sailed over my head as a seventeen-year-old, but stuck with  me just the same. Forty years later these truths come home to roost, as a man looking back at lessons learned and bracing himself for another go-round. The meaning changed for me like other stuff I first read at the same time. […]

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